In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,
I. JOHN'S APPEARANCE AND CHARACTER. He claimed to belong to the old prophetic line by appearing clad in the prophetic garb, the single rough garment of skin. His manner of life harmonized with his dress; leaving the comfortable home and well-provided life and fair prospects of a priestly family, he adopted the meagre, comfortless life of an ascetic. To entangle himself with the world would have tended to blind him to its vices and silence his remonstrance. He gathered round him a few men like himself, and "taught them to pray." Thus he became "a voice." The rough garment, the long, uncared-for hair, the wiry, weather-beaten frame, the ascetic life, were all eloquent. In any age, in order to become a voice for good, a man must be unworldly, consistent, himself the most convinced. The men who have few desires for earthly gain and comfort are accepted as the messengers of Heaven. There is no power on earth like the power of a consecrated life.
II. JOHN'S WORK WAS TO ROUSE THE PEOPLE TO PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD; to make ready for the coming of their King. (For illustrations of the figure, Stanley's 'Through the Dark Continent' may be consulted.) The herald of a royal progress has generally nothing to do but proclaim the approach of the king; triumphal arches are extemporized by the meanest village, unseemly things are swept away or hidden, the entire, population turns out to shout a welcome. But John had to turn the thoughts of men from lifelong pursuits; to convert, not an individual, which is hard enough, but a land. He had to prepare the way of One who came with power to bestow the Holy Ghost and make men the sons of God - a King who could be acceptable only to men thirsting for God and righteousness. Who are prepared to welcome Christ? Who are in a condition to hail as good tidings salvation from sin?
III. MEANS USED BY JOHN.
1. He preached and baptized. John preached that repentance was needed as a preparation for the coming King. He taught the people that it was a spiritual, not a physical, condition which qualified for entrance into the kingdom; that if it was a mere question of furnishing a number of Abraham's children as subjects for the Messiah, God could turn the stones into children of Abraham. In fact, he excommunicated the whole of Israel, and assured them they could enter the kingdom only by repentance and by the grace of him who would baptize with the Holy Ghost.
2. He put this teaching in a symbolic form. He baptized. The rite characterized his ministry. He was the Baptist. He made the born Jews undergo the rite proselytes underwent. Three things, say the Jews, make a proselyte - circumcision, baptism, sacrifice. And the law for the baptism of a proselyte was: "They bring the proselyte to baptism, and, when they have placed him in the water, they again instruct him in the weightier and lighter matters of the Law, which, being heard, he plunges down and comes up, and behold he is an Israelite in all things." Baptism was the symbol whereby the new birth was expressed to the eye. The Gentile went down into the water as into a grave, in which his old man was left, and he came up a new man, born now a Jew and not a Gentile - born of the water. To ask Jews to submit to this ordinance was to ask them to acknowledge that their physical birth as children of Abraham was insufficient to prepare them for their King. Points for homiletic elaboration: connection of word and symbol in sacraments - relation of sacrament to grace conferred - John's New Testament use of the title "Holy Ghost."
IV. RESULTS OF JOHN'S WORK. There was a fascination about him which drew all classes. The very sight of an old prophet of the extinct type was worth a day's journey to the wilderness. It became the fashion to see John and be baptized. The authorities paid him a compliment they can have paid to very few - they sent a deputation to ask him if he was the Messiah. But a public character or a preacher may be very popular, and yet the impression he makes may be superficial and transitory. Some were guided to Jesus by John, but it is difficult to say how far he succeeded in his object.
V. TESTS OF THE REALITY OF THE IMPRESSION HE MADE WERE GIVEN BY HIMSELF. No one was more surprised than he was at the kind of people that came to him. "Who hath warned you?" They professed repentance, but it was not profession which fitted them for the kingdom,' but the reality. Jesus was to come "with his fan in his hand," to make a thorough separation between bad men and good. Meanwhile judge of your repentance:
1. Not by its present expression in misery of mind or shame. Some derive a deceptive comfort from the remembrance of the wretched days they spent, the tears they shed, the shame they felt, when first they awoke to their sin. Others suspect their own repentance because it brought no such sorrow. Other griefs have struck them so fair and indubitably, have left so distinct a mark, have forced them to so genuine an expression of their pain, that they are staggered on finding no such evident sorrow in their repentance. But there are various temperaments, and you must not measure your grief with the grief of other men. And repentance is not like a worldly loss - it resembles not a fever or acute illness that seizes a man suddenly, but a chronic ailment, which hangs about him always, never making him cry out with pain, but always there, altering his whole life.
2. Judge by the fruits. Wait to see if it destroys sin in the life. Only a trained eye distinguishes the different kinds of corn in the blade, but any passer-by knows the difference between an ear of wheat and an ear of barley. Sunset is often a good deal like sunrise; but wait a little, and the difference is unmistakable. Fine spirit is like water; but apply a match, and the difference is apparent. Compare repentance about a worldly matter - investing in a bad concern; how careful a man is afterwards! The man whose repentance is genuine will not be able to indulge in sin as he did. Especially his characteristic sins will be abandoned. CONC Matthew LUSION. Christ is now revealed the Giver of the Holy Ghost. This is the gospel preached to us - that there is a river into which we may be plunged, and from it rise new creatures, the whole past swept away, and ourselves started on a new life. We have been baptized in sign that the Holy Ghost is freely given to us. God has by baptism opened to us individually this greatest Gift. We need the outward symbol, for we disbelieve in the Spirit's indwelling. So superficial has been our repentance, so unhelpful, so deceitful, that we always feel as if we were left to struggle alone against sin. We need to listen still to John, whose message was, "There standeth One among you who baptizeth with the Holy Ghost." - D.
Parallel VersesKJV: In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea,